Adam & Eve: A Failure of Vocation

House by Spring Mill Stream (2016)

What the Bible offers is not a “works contract,” but a covenant of vocation. The vocation in question is that of being a genuine human being, with genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for his world. The main task of this vocation is “image-bearing,” reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker. Those who do so are the “royal priesthood,” the “kingdom of priests,” the people who are called to stand at the dangerous but exhilarating point where heaven and earth meet.

• N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began

• • •

In the context of the biblical story, Adam is not so much the first sinner as he is the first failed savior.

What do I mean by that?

Here is my overview on how I have come to read the message about humans and God’s creation purposes for them in the book of Genesis.

  • Despite our common perception, the world we see in Genesis 1-2 is not a perfect world, devoid of sin and death.
  • God created adam to be his image in the world (that is, his priestly representative). This was (and is) the human vocation.
  • As his priestly representatives in the world, adam was to” “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Thus, the vocation involved not only taking care of creation as God’s stewards, but also actively engaging and overcoming evil.
  • To summarize: from the beginning God chose humans, those who carry his “image” in the world, to repair the world (something like the Jewish concept of tikkun olam). The original mandate for humans is that we should represent God in the world and to work with him to rule over an unruly world and overcome evil and its effects on the world.
  • Adam and Eve were not the first humans, but they were the first representative humans to be called into this covenant vocation, that they might bring eternal life to the world (through the Tree of Life).
  • The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden shows humankind’s failure to do that. They failed to exercise dominion over the creatures and subdue evil (as represented in the wiles and lies of the serpent).
  • They were thus exiled from Eden, thereby losing access to the Tree of Life for themselves and all their descendants, subjecting themselves and the world to the domination of sin, evil, and death.
  • This is, in microcosm, what the story of Israel and her leaders is about. Placed in God’s good land, and called to be a kingdom of priests and a light to the nations, Israel failed to keep God’s commandments and was ultimately cast into exile. Israel, like Adam, failed to live up to her vocation of bringing God’s life to the world.
  • What Adam could not do, what Israel and all her patriarchs, prophets, priests, and kings could not do, Jesus did. Through his death, resurrection and ascension, he exercised dominion over the powers holding this world captive and subdued evil, restoring access to the Tree of Life for the whole world. “If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:17).
  • Those who are “in Christ” now receive a foretaste of this: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). We read of the ultimate goal in John’s vision of the throne: you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth” (Revelation 5:10).

Behind all consideration of our “callings” as human beings to live in this world and care for it and each other by means of doing our work well and relating to others with love and regard, there is a “big picture” vocation from the story of creation that only Jesus the Messiah and Lord was able to accomplish and win back for us.

Like the first humans, we are called again to live in God’s blessing and life because Jesus exercised dominion over the powers of this world and subdued evil through his death and resurrection. Our “big picture” vocation has been restored. In Christ we once more enter into God’s creation mandate as we announce its restoration to the world. Jesus has made it possible for humans to live in this world as fully formed human beings and to repair the world. This is the life-giving good news we announce: Jesus’ victory and restoration of our vocation.

It will not be perfectly experienced until the restoration of all things, the new creation. But through Jesus-shaped lives, we begin to taste of the age to come.

Jesus’s followers themselves were to be given a new kind of task. The Great Jailer had been overpowered; now someone had to go and unlock the prison doors. Forgiveness of sins had been accomplished, robbing the idols of their power; someone had to go and announce the amnesty to “sinners” far and wide. And this had to be done by means of the new sort of power: the cross-resurrection-Spirit kind of power. The power of suffering love.

• N.T. Wright

37 thoughts on “Adam & Eve: A Failure of Vocation

  1. What an odd response. Actually, there are several less charitable adjectives I could use. If you get over yourself long enough to have a productive conversation I’d be happy to engage. Otherwise, I’d prefer not to experience your unprovoked negativity and judgmentalism.


  2. Thanx, Dana. I vaguely recall that and could easily have looked it up, but was irked beyond my limit by all the high-falutin’ obfuscation over words that are used to justify exploitation and tyranny. Still am. The Ancient Near East gave us Babylon, alive and well today last I checked. Jesus subdued and dominated dark spirits, not the common people, not critters, not our planet.


  3. The scientists dont even beleive in Adam and Eve, but say we we all evolved from the monkies. If thats true then sin does not exist, we can do anything we want, and Jesus was a lier and a fool.


  4. Hapax legoma means that the phrase in question appears only once in Scripture, in the verse in quoted.



  5. Charles, Adam is being presented as a royal representative, in the “image of God,” serving in God’s royal temple. That is the ancient imagery of the story. “Dominion” is appropriate to that metaphorical description.

    As for “subdue,” it indicates that all was not right with the world and that there were things needing subduing, such as the serpent in ch. 2. In chapter 1, it is implied that YHWH brought order to the chaos (v.2), another evidence of the cosmic battle involved in creation.

    Again, it is important to read all of this is Ancient Near East categories.


  6. >> I’m not sure either is a good translation in today’s culture, and neither is anyone else.

    Then why are we using them? If the meanings are fairly clear in their context, why don’t you clue the rest of us in? Not with pompous paragraphs please, but with substitute words that a Hebrew lexicon will back up. I don’t know what a hapax legomena is and don’t seem to have the patience right now to cut thru your fog. I looked thru maybe a couple of dozen English translations that all mirrored each other. My personal suspicion is that the words were brought back from Babylon but I have nothing to back that up other than that they are words of empire, not gardening. Like I said, I like the second version of the story better. I’m not a tyrant over my piece of land, I try to take care of it best I can so the Lord can take a walk around it should he ever choose to do so, and in the meantime the critters have a place of refuge.


  7. How then do we know they weren’t the first people?

    …how do you know that they were? This could go in circles fast…

    As for me, I choose to believe…something other than YEC.


  8. It’s a credible and compelling understanding. It makes sense out of certain things, and I find it congenial. But who knows, really? Perhaps someday we’ll find out if this or some other take on these matters is true, or maybe we won’t.

    just into the new
    but last year’s already gone
    with all those others


  9. I’m having some trouble understanding your comment. First, I’m not sure what Rome or Jesus or our cultural context have to do with the words the original authors and redactors utilized. Second, the English (KJV) “dominion” and “subdue” are hapax legomena in Hebrew. I’m not sure either is a good translation in today’s culture, and neither is anyone else. But I do think the meanings are fairly clear in their context.


  10. >> the pattern of leadership Adam was meant to employ is the same that Christ used – servant-leadership.

    Agreed, Eeyore, and if so why is the story told using words of empire like “subdue” and “dominion”? The Romans were already doing a world-class job of that when Jesus was born. I much prefer the alternate and completely different story of Adam in which his job, or vocation if you prefer the five dollar word, was to tend the garden. I think I was doing that today when I was going out every two hours to sweep off the new snow and put down fresh seed for the Doves and Sparrows and anyone else who can’t eat from a hanging feeder. On the other hand I can remember my grandfather putting down seed for the Doves so he could blast them with his scatter gun. I’m sure he would have mentioned the Biblical mandate to subdue and dominate the birds if called on it. Granted that Jesus was not adverse to a fish fry, but I find it hard to picture him letting loose with both barrels of bird shot at a flock of Doves.


  11. Though CM figured it was not only the Age of Reason but the Industrial Revolution pushing towards a mechanistic view of everything.

    I’d like to see him elaborate on that idea.


  12. +1 I find impossible to do what you state in of doing it by myself. Even with being filled with the Spirit it leaves times of failure not of the spirit but by self. The best I have ever done in life is with the spirit flowing through me as it seems it takes me out of self and brings joy unspeakable. Christ becomes my tree of life and never forbids me of taking from Him. Totally unselfish. His whole walk here to the cross. The only tremble was in the garden when He said Father let this cup pass me by. Not my will your will be done. Does it seem the Garden needed to be a place to pass through in the journey of mankind? After all Jesus never was plan B. Adam never had to do in the Garden and he walked with God in the cool of the day. God has always loved us and has done what has had to happen and is still happening. Hard to understand the gruesome with the beautiful. My feeling is it has something to do with the laws that are governing love and goodness. Something I do not understand but will someday.


  13. Nope, not “servant-leadership.” There is no such term in Scripture (I know, I know…), and “leadership” is a concept taken from the world of politics and commerce. Forgive me; I have seen the term abused too much, even by well-meaning Christians.

    No. The pattern of Adam’s vocation is the same as that of Christ’s: death – whether complete physical death, or the humility of any other sacrifice in co-suffering love. No, Jesus was not a “wimp.” But he did know exactly where the strong language he used, when he used it, would lead. Of course, there is also resurrection, but the cart can’t come before the horse, so to speak. They both have to be there, in the proper order. We only know what Adam’s vocation was supposed to be because it was revealed to us through Christ fulfilling it, and we can (and must) read the OT through that fulfillment in the Pascha event. Wright gets this. Jesus became King on the Cross; his power was all in his voluntary surrender to death, taking into himself like a vacuum all the terrible things related to human wickedness and thus destroying their ultimate power. It is the display of God’s forgiveness – which has always been there, but we couldn’t understand what forgiveness really is until the Cross.

    In Orthodox iconography, the most common representation of The Resurrection isn’t the moment the Lord was revivified; that moment is never depicted. Rather, it is what we commemorate on Holy Saturday: the harrowing of Hell. This icon depicts Christ as having demolished the doors and locks of Hades, with the righteous departed standing nearby watching; but the main image in the icon is the Lord grabbing Adam and Eve by the wrists and yanking them out of their tombs! He has undone the death of all mankind, and the slavery into which the fear of death has thrown us. That’s the ultimate meaning of the Passover Event in the book of Exodus – it’s The Exodus of mankind from the land of exile and its dominion.

    It’s all there in Hebrews 2.10-15.



  14. It is not the nature of Scripture that we be always and fully comfortable with it. A premise initially insinuated or stated may be more fully developed or commented on later in the narrative sections or in the wisdom literature. Other passages will be forever obscure mysteries inserted into what we understand to be the canon.


  15. Funny, I just looked him up for the heck of it and the first thing I found through Google was him saying that. It’s YouTube – Dr. Bruce Morgan – why Eagles have white hair.


  16. Even though the veracity of this perspective is unable to be demonstrated, it is a plausible explanation, and merits circulation, examination, and discussion.


  17. Setting aside the Poe factor, if as CM said Adam was meant to be the proto-savior, then it makes sense that the pattern of leadership Adam was meant to employ is the same that Christ used – servant-leadership.


  18. Leila,
    I think Chaplain Mike’s point would hold even if Adam and Eve were the first humans. My take is that creation was spoiled by Lucifer’s fall, not Adam’s. So, even if there were no other people on earth, there were other dangers that made it necessary for Adam and Eve to be placed in a protected Garden and not just someplace on the face of the earth.


  19. ” . . . fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves upon the earth”

    Excuse me, my Predator Alert is going off. Ah, it red-flagged “subdue” and “dominion”, those don’t sound good. Oh, wait a minute, it says “over every living thing that moves upon the earth”. That would include my neighbors and all those folks living in cities, and come to think of it, all of you. This has some distinct possibilities, and the Bible is written to me, right? I’m starting to like God’s plan here. Wait, if ruling the earth is my vocation, what do I want to call myself? I’m guessing there would be a few malcontents who would object to “king” or “emperor”. Maybe I should start out with “Reverend”. That has kind of a humble sound to it.


  20. “A story” does not necessarily mean fiction.

    Even if the non-fiction is dramatized or uses imagery for impact.


  21. What about Verbal Plenary Inspiration(TM) and The Plain Meaning of SCRIPTURE(TM)?

    Some time ago, CM theorized that the one-two punch of the Age of Reason and Industrial Revolution changed the Bible from the Old Stories of God and Man to a Spiritual Engineering Checklist of FACT, FACT, FACT.

    My type example of this is The Gospel According to Hal Lindsay and the use of Revelation’s trippy imagery as a Checklist of FACTual History Written In Advance — Check, Check, Check, Check, Check.

    “His mind is made of wheels and metal.”
    — Treebeard regarding Saruman


  22. This fits my sense of the meaning of this story better than the literalist reading of Adam and Eve. And it is the first reading I can recall seeing that gives viable meaning to the “subdue it” portion of the story.


  23. I have held for a long time that is so much more about being than doing. And being, fully, ourselves we reflect the image of him who made us. Of course that will entail some doing but the doing occurs as a result of the becoming, the bearing of that image. What goes on on the inside expresses itself on the outside .


  24. An important point. We moderns insist that all other forms of conveyance of information (story, analogy, typology, ad inf.) must be leveled/done away with and replaced with literal “scientific” fact-telling. That’s not how ancient Hebrews thought (or any culture before our own, for that matter) and it’s sheer hubris to insist that we read that model back into forms of communication that did not intend to convey truth in that manner.


  25. Leila, I don’t think the Bible is telling that story or attempting to give scientific origins of humanity. It’s telling a story about Israel’s origins and Adam is the first example of someone given a priestly vocation who failed in fulfilling it.


  26. Mule, I don’t think of teaching about vocation as “democratizing” in the sense of bringing everyone down to the same level, but rather as lifting everyone up to the true nature of their humanity.

    I think the Magnificat serves as an example.


  27. Bear in mind Leila that in the Hebrew the first man’s name was “Mankind” and the first women’s name was “Life-Giver”. Isn’t it just possible the Genesis author(s) was telling a story.


  28. 🙂 How then do we know they weren’t the first people? This is interesting to me and I was wondering what evidence we have of this since most all of the churches I’ve been to never taught this.


  29. Adam and Eve were not the first humans, but they were the first representative humans to be called into this covenant vocation, that they might bring eternal life to the world .

    Interesting that NT Wright’s concept of Adam and Eve’s separation into ‘holy orders’ , which fits very well with the Fall narrative in the Eastern tradition, negates the whole spiritual leveling project of the previous post.

    I don’t understand why the democratization of the Kingdom is such an urgent priority, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it started with Luther.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: